So, that’s it then? Boris Johnson has been dragged kicking and screaming from his freshly refurbished flat in 10 Downing Street. In just over 48 hours, the Great Resignation took root in the halls of Westminster with a steady and humiliating stream of ministers and aides each submitting their notice.
The choreography of the exodus – the biggest in British history – was impressive. Big dogs first, with chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid kicking off proceedings on Tuesday. A flood of parliamentary private secretaries followed the vanguard that evening, before momentum continued the next day with more ministers – including a “multipack” resignation from five at once – handing back portfolios. By 5pm on Wednesday, 32 ministers and PPSs had stuck the knife in and bolted. Farce followed, including attorney general Suella Braverman launching a leadership bid live on TV but not actually resigning her post, and a public letter of revolt from Nadhim Zahawi, Johnson’s freshly minted chancellor. Finally, 12.30pm today marked the time of death, as Johnson stood in front of the Downing Street lectern of doom and announced his resignation (without once saying any version of the word ‘resign’).
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was bred for power. From his childhood as the son of a diplomat, to taking the well-trodden path to politics via Eton and then Oxford, Johnson has spent his entire life at the centre of the establishment. He knows innately the unspoken conventions and codes that govern this set – and how to manipulate them for his own ends.
At every stage of his adult career, Johnson has – until now – been cushioned from the consequences of bad behaviour by his background, his social connections and his fluency in the language of the elite insider. He has failed upwards at every turn, from sacked journalist to corrupt politician. The outgoing prime minister is the purest product of his environment possible; a grotesque caricature of the entitled, self-interested public schoolboy. From childhood, he was groomed to take advantage of his social standing for personal gain. Rather than an outlier, he’s the ultimate establishment politician. As a result, his downfall has exposed just how deep the rot goes.
The British parliamentary system rests on a feeble, historic understanding of ‘gentleman’s honour’, from the now-unenforced ministerial code to declaring relevant financial interests. Johnson has very quickly reminded the public that precedent is only as strong as the last person to break it. The meagre checks and balances that exist in parliament have buckled under his dogged refusal to ever explain, apologise or take responsibility. He’s broken all the rules that would constrain others outside his elite social strata, just as he was taught to do.
And why wouldn’t he? The entire system is geared to reward such behaviour. In parliament, his colleagues weren’t even able to call out his lies without being thrown out of the Commons chamber. Meanwhile, Johnson was able to stand at the dispatch week after week, telling as many tall tales as he wanted.
From his position at the top of government, he could airily amend the rules in his favour, from smaller abuses of power – such as rewriting the ministerial code – to legacies that will long outlast him, such as the dismantling of human rights and openly challenging the last dregs of the illusion of British democracy.
Johnson may have done this on a scale unmatched by predecessors since the 18th century, but he’s hardly the first MP to pledge allegiance to a degraded and corrupt politics. Instead, he’s a product of a culture where elites can act with impunity, held back only by their own internal ethical red tape. Johnson, it appears, has none. As such, he’s shown there’s no limit to the depths the office can sink if someone suitably morally bankrupt is in the driver’s seat. What’s more, Johnson leaves behind a legacy that shores up government power, while undermining the rights of citizens in almost every facet of public life, from protest to voting rights. It’s difficult to imagine either his successor, or a government led by top cop Keir Starmer, would be willing to give up that sort of power entirely.
Perhaps most telling of this rot is the rats who fled Johnson’s ship. Resignation screed after screed (doubling up a “job applications”, as James Butler put it) told of losing faith in Johnson’s integrity, in disagreeing with government policy, whether it be economic or creating an “atmosphere of hostility” for LGTBQ+ people. Johnson has been prime minister for three years. Very few of these gripes are new. The only thing that’s changed is his popularity with the public.
These politicians backed Johnson, adopted his lies, and were perfectly happy to align themselves with his agenda when it suited them. Johnson purposefully cultivated these types, knowing all too well the crossover between ‘self-interest’ and ‘loyalty’ of post-Thatcherite generations. Notably, Zahawi reportedly waited until after he had successfully bargained his way into becoming chancellor to head to Johnson’s office with a group of ministers to tell the prime minister it was time to go. Johnson may have been evicted, but the government is still stacked with the ‘talent’ he honed and elevated.
If all those professing horror at Johnson’s dereliction of duty were really so concerned, they’d back the changes needed to begin addressing the lopsided elitism of parliament. Scrap the elections bill for a start, and push for the introduction of proportional representation. Rethink the modern whipping system, which is plagued by allegations of misuse, bullying and blackmail. Overhaul the selection process for prospective MPs. Actually define a democratically agreed constitution, not one based on anonymous letters sent to The Times. Beef up the ministerial code, removing the oversight of the prime minister, and make it law – not just quaint guidelines treated as historic artefact.
Will any of this come to pass? It’s unlikely in the short term. It would threaten the interests of those who know their influence is secured not via merit and democracy but by birth and old boys’ networks. But those who bleat on about Johnson being a glitch in the system are deceiving themselves. Very little separates Johnson from his political peers (especially those poised to replace him): an extra dash of entitlement here, a sprinkling more open contempt there – perhaps his naked need to cling to the top job instead of going round the back and getting a cushy financial job from which to lobby government. The establishment that created Johnson will now hope to paper over the gaping holes he’s left in Downing Street’s walls, pretending his exit means we can return to ‘normal’. Maybe – just maybe – political polyfilla won’t be enough to get them off the hook this time.
Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.